Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C Makes It to the Lunar Surface in US Return After Half a Century

Intuitive Machines’ first mission (IM-1) featuring the Nova-C Odysseus lunar lander was launched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 on February 15th, 2024, as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). Targeting a landing site near the lunar south pole, it was supposed to use its onboard laser range finders to help it navigate safely for a soft touchdown on the lunar surface. Unfortunately, it was this component that was found to have malfunctioned as the spacecraft was already in lunar orbit. Fortunately, there was a with around. By using one of the NASA payloads on the lander, the Navigation Doppler Lidar (NDL), the mission could continue.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of the NDL as a fallback option was considered before launch, and since its functionality overlaps with that of the primary laser range finders of Nova-C, it was pressed into service with a new configuration uploaded by IM operators back on Earth before Nova-C committed to a landing burn. Then, on February 22nd, the spacecraft began its descent to the surface, which also involved the Eaglecam payload that was designed to be released before snapping a self-portrait of the lander as it descended.

Following the landing, there was initially no signal from the lander, which had everyone fearing the worst. Then, a faint signal was detected, which confirmed that the lander had made it safely to the surface. This makes it the first US-built lunar lander in over half a century and the first privately funded US one. The following day, IM reported that they are still communicating with the lander, and everything looks good so far. This raises hope that it may complete its 7-day mission before lunar sunset, which silences Odysseus forever.

This apparent success of the IM-1 mission bodes well for NASA’s CLPS program after the earlier demise of the CLPS-1 mission involving Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine spacecraft.

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